Guide and Pilgrim Archetypal Images in Dante’s Divine Comedy

Whether we are on a quest for animal photography in Africa, attempting to traverse the corporate maze, or maintain some semblance of equanimity in the demands of parenting who can we turn to for guidance? Too often in this journey we call life we begin the journey without a guide and rarely find one along the way.

Where is the guide we can turn to?

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Dante Alighieri in his The Divine Comedy: Inferno; Purgatorio; Paradiso shows us what the archetypal guide can be to the weary pilgrim. An example comes from Book One, Inferno. In Canto VIII we meet rebel angels who invite Dante’s guide, Virgil, to desert Dante. This is a significant point in the canto.

The overpowering fear of being abandoned in this horrific place of hell inflicts Dante with panic. He is vulnerable in this Inferno and this canto explicitly conveys his deep felt awareness of this fact. He relies heavily on his guide. Dante is forced to contemplate his situation.  Without Virgil, could he continue? Without Virgil could he return to his everyday world? The potential loss of his guide is devastating as well as frightening. Without Virgil, “returning here seemed so impossible.” Dante’s reliance on his guide is substantial throughout the entire work, but it is emphasized here.

Virgil is an honorable, trustworthy and competent guide. When Dante pleads, “do not desert me when I’m so undone,” Virgil reassures Dante by responding:

Forget your fear, no one can hinder/our passage; One so great has granted it. / . . .feed and comfort your tired spirit with good hope, for I / will not abandon you in this low world.

There is a two way connection between the one being guided and the one guiding, especially on a perilous track. The guide, having traveled this way before, has the responsibility to safely make progress to reach the end of the trek. He or she is also duty-bound to accommodate the reasonable needs of the traveler.

The one being guided also has responsibilities. The one on the quest should not falter in determination to gain the journey’s end nor hinder the guide. In great measure, the pilgrim should take to heart the guide’s instructions and counsel. Virgil says to Dante:

You—though I am vexed— /Must not be daunted; I shall win this contest.

Dante confesses that his confidence has repeatedly been given back to him by his “dear guide.” Dante seems to believe he is no match for this formidable journey. However, with his confidence restored, once again by his guide, he finds within himself what it takes to continue on and he fulfills his part of the guide-traveler relationship.

Guide, traveler, fear of abandonment, comfort and hope are all archetypal images. Dante taps into this archetypal force to affect his readers profoundly. What traveler in distress in an unknown land does not wish for a knowledgeable, competent guide? Who does not need hope in the face of despair? And, is there anyone who couldn’t use a little comfort and confidence in order to continue?

I do not envy Dante his journey, but, I am slightly envious of his remarkable guide. If, like Dante, we cannot complete the journey nor can we return to journey’s starting point without a guide, it’s no wonder that so many of us falter or even fail for lack of one. In a culture where guidance is often rejected in the name of independence, Dante’s image and commentary remind us of the value of this age-old companion.

Numinous and the numinosum

Recently I was asked to explain the word “numinous”.  So, here goes:

The word “numinous” was coined by Rudolf Otto from the Latin numen, meaning a god, cognate with the verb nuere, to nod or beckon, indicating divine approval.  This word, or its noun, the “numinosum,” refers to any phenomenon experienced as a manifestation of tremendous power felt to be objective and outside the self.  It is a crucial element of religious experience.  For Otto, the numinosum is non-rational and irreducible; it cannot be defined, only evoked and experienced.

According to Lionel Corbett, the numinous grips or stirs the soul.  The numinous produces a kind of holy terror, awe or dread which Otto describes as a feeling of the ‘mysterium tremendum.’ It can also erupt in the modern person as the experience of the uncanny or the supernatural.  Such awe may be overwhelming or it may be gentle as the still small voice.  The uncanny is not a function of intensity but rather of a specific quality. [see The Religious Function of the Psyche by Lionel Corbett for a detailed discussion on this.]

I experience the redwoods of northern California as a portal into the numinous.  The magnificence of these sentinels  “stirs my soul.”  I stand in awe of their grandeur.  There is something “uncanny” about them.  For me, these expressions of nature, I experience as supernatural.  There is something larger at work here; something that cannot be defined; only experienced.

According to Richard Tarnas in Cosmos and Psyche the numinous is also defined as something that suddenly confronts human awareness with an unexpected dimension of reality, something that is experienced as “Wholly Other” than the mundane sphere, that utterly transcends and subverts the everyday world of conventional experience, and that disrupts the very ground of one’s being as it was previously construed.  Jung’s notion of synchronicity can be recognized as the inexplicable coincidence that carries a numinous charge.

For me, myths are not necessarily numinous in and of themselves; just as the menu is not the meal, the map is not the landscape, and the road sign is not the way, etc.  What myths do is to alert us to the possibility of the numinous.  They help us recognize when we are in the grips of the mysterium tremendum.  The numinous can be beatific like Dante’s vision of Beatrice.  It can also hold a terror as when a demon visits us in a dream and we awaken breathing heavily in a cold sweat.  And, the numinous can also be experienced gently as the still small voice. Regardless of the form, the soul is deeply stirred.

My attraction to myth is many layered.  One of these layers is simply because myths are great stories.  Also, they typically contain pearls of wisdom.  They are mirrors reflecting the human condition.  And, I could go on.  However, for the purposes of this commentary, let me say that I am attracted to myths because they are metaphors for life that cannot really be explained directly.

Myths are keys opening the door beyond which lies the numinous.

Neo at the Architect's door

Neo at the Architect’s door

I hope this helps clarify the word “numinous.”  I currently do not have a forum, but I would be interested in hearing about your “numinous” experiences.

The Hero’s Journey – Descent

The Descent of Inanna: Primary characters:

Inanna – Goddess of Love, aka Queen of Heaven or Great Above
Ereshkigal – Goddess of the Underworld or the Great Below
Enki – God of Wisdom
Ninshubur – faithful companion to Inanna
Dumuzi – shepherd and King
Neti – guardian of the seven gates
Anunnaki – judges of the underworld

Back Story

Through trickery, Inanna takes from Enki the gifts of the me, the arts pertaining to kingship, priesthood, warcraft, speechcraft, lovemaking, agriculture, and the trades or techne necessary for commerce and community.  Enki allows her to keep the me when he sees she has added to it.

The journey to the Great Below is implicitly connected to the rejection of her lover, Dumuzi and his misuse of the me which Inanna has bestowed on him. She departs for the Great Below to restore balance.


She adorns herself with her queenly robes, jewels, and divine decrees (me) that she fastens at her belt.  She readies herself to enter the “land of no return,” the nether world of death and darkness, governed by her enemy and sister goddess, Ereshkigal.  In fear that her sister might put her to death, Inanna instructs Ninshubur, her messenger, to go to heaven and send out a cry for her in the assembly hall of the gods if after three days she should have failed to return.

There are seven gates through which Inanna must pass. Ereshkigal instructs Neti to open the seven gates to the queen of heaven, but to abide by the custom and remove at each portal a part of her clothing.

“Come, Inanna, enter.”

Upon her entering the first gate,
The shugurra, the “crown of the plain” of her head, was removed
“What, pray, is this?”
“Extraordinarily, O Inanna, have the decrees of the nether world been perfected,
O Inanna, do not question the rites of the nether world.”

Upon her entering the second gate,
The rod of lapis lazuli was removed.
“What, pray, is this?”
“Extraordinarily, O Inanna, have the decrees of the nether world been perfected,
O Inanna, do not question the rites of the nether world.”

Upon her entering the third gate,
The small lapis lazuli stones of her neck were removed.
“What, pray, is this?”
“Extraordinarily, O Inanna, have the decrees of the nether world been perfected,
O Inanna, do not question the rites of the nether world.”

Upon her entering the fourth gate,
The sparkling stones of her breast were removed.
“What, pray, is this?”
“Extraordinarily, O Inanna, have the decrees of the nether world been perfected,
O Inanna, do not question the rites of the nether world.”

Upon her entering the fifth gate,
The gold ring of her hand was removed
“What, pray, is this?”
“Extraordinarily, O Inanna, have the decrees of the nether world been perfected,
O Inanna, do not question the rites of the nether world.”

Upon her entering the sixth gate,
The breastplate of her breast was removed.
“What, pray, is this?”
“Extraordinarily, O Inanna, have the decrees of the nether world been perfected,
O Inanna, do not question the rites of the nether world.”

Upon her entering the seventh gate
All the garments of ladyship of her body were removed.
“What, pray, is this?”
“Extraordinarily, O Inanna, have the decrees of the nether world been perfected,
O Inanna, do not question the rites of the nether world.”

Naked, she was brought before the throne. She bowed low. The seven judges of the nether world, the Anunnaki, sat before the throne of Ereshkigal, and they fastened their eyes upon Inanna; ­the eyes of death.

At their word, the word which tortures the spirit,
The sick woman was turned into a corpse,
The corpse was hung from a stake.

Descent to the Great Below

Descent to the Great Below

The Commentary

The story of the Descent of Inanna exemplifies, in a poetically vivid way, the “descent” of the Hero’s Journey as presented by Christopher Vogler  (click for description).  Imagine being stripped of everything you have; of everything you know about yourself; of every artifact that represents your life as you know it.  This is what Inanna experiences in her descent.  This is what rites of passage successfully do to the initiate.  One phase of life is radically cut away.

If Joseph Campbell is correct and the Hero’s Journey parallels the structure of rites of passage, this portion of the journey is where the hero enters into a womb-like environment to be reborn symbolically; or in rites of passage, the initiate faces a similar descent so as to be reborn psychologically.

The descent is a deepening of the problem of the first threshold and the question is still in balance: Can the ego put itself to death? Inanna arrives naked before the throne of Ereshkigal and the seven judges, the Anunnaki; they fasten their eyes upon her and she is turned into a corpse which is hung upon a stake. She loses everything and is left dead; a naked corpse hanging on a meat hook. That is descent.

Another well known descent is Dante’s Inferno


Often, if a meaningful story is well constructed and well told, the hero goes through this process in the course of the narrative intertwined with the plot and theme.  If you use the Hero’s Journey as a tool to structure your story, a comprehensive understanding of what is meant by “descent” will inform and enrich your characters and their actions as they descend in their story.  Stories such as Descent of Inanna and Dante’s Inferno provide a rich resource to assist you in this endeavor.

Post Script

Inanna’s story does not end here.  To finish the story see Descent of Inanna or The Harps that Once…: Sumerian Poetry in Translation.